Growing old is a universal and inescapable human experience. Eventually, if we’re lucky, we reach an age when we can look back on our lives while also preparing for what’s to come. As much as we strive to grow old with grace and virtue in the hope that our senior years will be fulfilling and independent, we also recognize that we may not always be able to do for ourselves. Providing that oft-needed support is the role that AARP strives to play for America’s senior generations.
As one of the largest nonprofits in the United States, AARP is a well-respected advocate for the most vulnerable of society. In the commonwealth, AARP’s Virginia office serves and fights for the state’s elderly population. Foremost on the organization’s priority list is nursing home reform. Making sure the elderly in these communities are receiving adequate funding, treatment and are being cared for safely and with dignity has always been and continues to be a significant focus for AARP.
The beginning of the year is one of the busiest times for AARP Virginia, coinciding with the state legislative session that starts in January. For the 2022 session, the primary focus has been House Bill 646, introduced by Del. Betsy Carr (D-Richmond). This bill dealt with enabling nursing homes to provide a minimum amount of direct patient care to each resident per day, with a portion of that minimum to be fulfilled by a registered nurse. Virginia is currently one of 18 states that does not have any sort of nursing home staffing requirements.
Postponed through voice vote by House Health, Welfare and Institutions Subcommittee, H.B. 646 has been delayed for at least another year, with legislators citing funding issues and other uncertainties as the reason for the postponement.
This is not the first-time nursing home reform bills have stalled in the Virginia legislature. In fact, the General Assembly has declined to pass legislation on nursing home staffing reform for 19 consecutive years. In response, AARP Virginia says that it is “profoundly disappointed” that the bills have been deferred once again.
“I think people lose sight that these are human beings; it’s not just money… they are people,” said AARP Virginia State Advocacy Director Natalie Snider. “I realize that a lot of these people are looking for end-of-life care, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve dignity.”
It has become clear that many of these reforms are imperative for nursing homes throughout the state. The Nursing Home Abuse Advocate (NHAA) has listed 117 Virginia facilities as places where harm has occurred to residents. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) 5-star rating system, 155 Virginia facilities have received a rating of either one or two stars in terms of staffing. Overall quality also has been rated one or two stars in more than 100 facilities.
Given these low ratings, many are left to wonder why changes to the state’s nursing home oversight have been so elusive. A survey by AARP found that more than 71% of all voters support the establishment of minimum hourly staffing requirements (as proposed in H.B. 646). With such overwhelming support, the postponement has created frustration across the board for AARP staff, volunteers and those affected by these nursing home shortcomings.
Even so, AARP Virginia knows this battle all too well, and while this setback does add to a growing list of perennial disappointments, the fight continues on for the Virginia team.
“You just have to get up and go ‘OK… We’re not dead in the water;’ there are promises that have been made and our action is to hold those legislators to those promises,” Snider said.
Conversations will continue in the summer involving H.B. 646 in preparation for next year’s legislative session, with Del. Bobby Orrock (R-Thornburg), chair of the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee, pledging to continue discussions.
Throughout the process, there is still hope that the desire for reform will continue to grow and that the long-overdue changes ultimately will be enacted. “We know that the need and desire is there in the public to have this done,” Snider said. “So, I think we need to harness that outrage that nothing has been done all these years and direct it to the decision-making body.”